Previewing tonight's Jazz game vs. L.A., I made the following predictions:
Kobe will go for 45 and not involve the rest of his team. They'll stop cutting and setting picks and doing the stuff that makes the Lakers so dangerous.
Jazz will execute as a team, Deron will have 12+ assists, Boozer will have another double-double and Brewer will rack up six fouls guarding Kobe.
Jazz by 8.
I was wrong about pretty much everything.
I think Kobe did a good job of involving the team... he scored 28 while players like Farmar and Bynum got plenty of touches, and the team as a whole shot over 44% for the game and scored 96 points.
The problem for the Lakers tonight was that the Jazz scrubs stepped up. Boozer sat out (something that was a game-time decision) and Okur didn't dress because of back spasms. The Lakers jumped out to an early lead and I figured the Jazz were in for a long night.
Then guys like Harpring, Millsap and Fesenko showed up. Harp shot 4-4 from the field and ended up with 12 points and 8 rebounds. Millsap filled in admirably for Boozer, scoring 20 points and pulling down 9 boards in 35 minutes. Even our Ukranian friend Fesenko, in his first NBA game, contributed well, scoring six points and grabbing eight rebounds in only 17 minutes.
Fesenko's play tonight was far better than what Collins has been giving the Jazz this season. Here's hoping the Jazz don't send Fes back to the Developmental League in Orem tomorrow. If he can get good minutes this season, he can be a solid interior defender for the team.
(Maybe the Jazz can trade Collins to the Nets for a draft pick... who wouldn't want both the Collins brothers shoring up their frontcourt?)
But the real reason for the Utah's 120-96 win over the Lakers was Kirilenko.
For whatever reason, Andrei has morphed back into AK-47 of old... the guy who carried the Jazz during 40-win seasons, putting up near-triple-doubles on a regular basis, directing the offense, dominating on defense, and generally upping the energy level of the team by 30-40% every game.
Then Deron became one of the top-five point guards in the league, Boozer and Okur joined the team and AK found himself the 4th option. His production fell off, and he became vocal about wanting a trade. Many sports writers theorized that AK was unhappy about not getting shots in the offense and accused him of being selfish. People saw Andrei as valuing his own stats over team wins. This all came to a head last summer after Andrei played for the Russian national team in the European championships. Russia beat Spain in the final game to win the tournament, and Andre was named MVP. Speaking to reporters, AK stated he wanted to stay in Russia and opt out of his contract with the Jazz.
This drew a lot of ire from Jazz fans, some of which openly wanted Andrei to go in order for the Jazz to free up salary-cap room and make room for a solid shooting guard.
Nothing was resolved between Andrei and the Jazz management, at least not publicly. Fans worried that Andrei would end up riding the bench while costing the Jazz $167,187.50 a game.
Jazz owner Larry Miller did state that he felt coach Jerry Sloan could stand to be nicer to his players. Maybe somehow this influenced Jerry to hug Andrei after every practice and tell him he loved him. Maybe Boozer offered to mow Andrei's lawn every week if Kirilenko got more than five triple-doubles on the season. Maybe Andrei was visited by the ghost of his dead grandmother who told him to put up or shut up.
Whatever happened, Andrei is back. He's increased his points, assists, rebounds and blocks per game. He's back to recording near-triple-doubles on a regular basis, filling the stat sheet tonight with 20 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists, six steals and four blocks with no turnovers.
Can't do much better than that. One of his many great plays against the Lakers:
In the third quarter, Andrei found himself in the unenviable position of having to stop Kobe in the open court. One-on-one, Kobe is nearly impossible to stop. Kobe coming at you with a full head of steam when there are no help defenders is a nightmare for any defensive specialist in the league. AK-47 managed to force Kobe to the left side of the hoop and block his layup attempt off the backboard. Very impressive.
The Jazz made the Western Conference Finals last year. I think they can get farther this year. Why? First, the contributions of Brewer and Fesenko. Brewer got no playing time in the playoffs last year and Fesenko is a rookie. If they both continue to improve over the course of the season, they'll be big factors in May.
And with Andrei creating plays on offense and havoc on defense, Deron, Carlos and Mehmet will have less pressure to carry the team by themselves.
If the Jazz don't make the NBA Finals this year, they will in 2009. Mark it down.